Sketchy. Chaotic. Fast.
The morning after the 2018 USA CRITS Winston-Salem Cycling Classic, terms like these were used a fair bit.
The figure-eight course in the historic downtown of the city had lived up to its billing as one for the strong women and men of the domestic race circuit. Unfamiliar with the gritty style of U.S. crit racing, the international fields served up quite a few inexperienced criterium racers, leaving them exposed and unprepared for what was to come.
U.S. criteriums are like nothing else around the world. The racing is full gas from the start, and riders must be prepared to rub shoulders and bump elbows. This isn’t necessarily due to fighting for position or trying to move up in the pack; it’s more a reflection of the close-knit racing — something not everyone in the pro fields in Winston-Salem has experienced before.
“You definitely have to keep your head up at all times,” said pro women’s winner Samantha Schneider (ISCorp). “Positioning is so crucial on courses like [Winston-Salem]. You don’t want to get shuffled too far back because then you’re at risk of riding with people who aren’t too comfortable going around the corners.
“It’s really about keeping your guard up at all times, which is a little bit weird for me because I’m usually really comfortable floating front, back, middle. [Saturday] was definitely a race where I wasn’t too comfortable drifting further back.”
Schneider has been around the block a time or two on the U.S. criterium scene, and won the Winston-Salem criterium last year. She’s comfortable rubbing elbows through corners and isn’t afraid to show her face in the wind from time to time. On Saturday in North Carolina, she put on a clinic on how to control your nerves during a high-adrenaline criterium and keep your cool when not in the most comfortable of positions.
The women’s field was incredibly deep with 112 starters — a surprisingly large number for a pro women’s race. It shows what a high-level UCI one-day race can do in helping grow cycling in the U.S. Held the weekend after the Amgen Tour of California, the race attracts many of the same riders from the west coast WorldTour race.
However, with a large field also comes a wide spectrum of abilities.
“You have to kind of figure out who is who and what their strengths are on the bike,” Schneider said. “A lot of other countries don’t have criterium racing, so going around the corners as fast as the crit riders go around them puts them a little bit on edge.”
Schneider and her ISCorp teammates played the early part of the race cool and watched the attacks go and come back before finally chasing moves down. The hard pace meant Schneider was left without a lead-out and had to fend for herself, freelancing off of other riders.
The sprint in Winston-Salem is a fast one. A sweeping downhill right-hand corner leads into the roughly 250-300 metre finishing straight with a final little uphill kicker to the line. First out of the corner is not where you want to be, the finishing straight is too long to win from the front. However anywhere outside of the top five and you’re fighting for a minor placing or the podium at best — not the win.
Schneider appeared to show her face only once during the entire 30-lap women’s race — when she crossed the line with her hands in the air as the victor ahead of a pair of national champions, Cuban Arlenis Sierra (Astana ) and U.S. criterium champion Erica Allar (Rally Cycling).
It was a perfect example of a sprinter playing it cool and conserving energy to do their best possible effort at the end.
Crits aren’t just for sprinters
On a challenging criterium course like Winston-Salem, sprinters don’t always win. Just ask Colin Joyce (Rally Cycling).
“I don’t like to classify myself as a sprinter,” Joyce said. “Honestly, I don’t think I am that good of a sprinter. There are definitely a lot faster guys and a lot better guys at positioning. [Saturday] actually suited me quite well because it was more of a harder course and my skill set is more for harder days that end in a select sprint.”
Entering Saturday, Joyce had done no criteriums this year. Better yet, he hadn’t even raced in the U.S. Instead, he has been bouncing around Europe this spring with Rally Cycling, doing long, hard one-day races and weeklong stage races. No quick, heart-pounding criteriums.
He wasn’t feeling well heading into Saturday night, either. His legs were good, but a respiratory bug was bothering him. He thought he’d take it easy and let criterium-experienced Rally Cycling teammates like Ty Magner, Robin Carpenter, and Eric Young take care of business.
This year, Joyce has become accustomed to a smooth neutral roll out of town to start a race. That wasn’t the case on Saturday night when the starting gun went off and the attacks began in earnest.
“Robin and I started at the back and it took me a while to get to the front. That hurt quite a lot,” Joyce said.
Still, Joyce is an American bike racer, so he’s no stranger to criteriums. As the race wore on, the rush of rubbing shoulders and the blistering hard pace came back to him. He jumped into the thick of it and his fitness from tough hard days in Europe this spring paid dividends in the end.
The 23-year-old swiftly put himself in prime position heading into the final corner and beat out established sprinters such as Canadian national criterium champion Pier-Andre Cote (Silber).
“I like crits,” Joyce said, after a pause. “They can be a little dangerous at times, but as long as you’re racing at the front it’s okay. They’re fun, super fast, high pace and just a lot going on like turning and braking and you just have to be super aware the whole time.”
American criterium racing is its own beast. It takes years to learn; a strong bike racer doesn’t immediately become a strong criterium racer.
In the case of Schneider, she leaned on her years of experience to hide, conserve, and come to the fore only when it mattered.
For Joyce, despite racing no criteriums this year, his victory showed that it’s in his DNA. He found his groove and, having matured as a bike rider with experience in Europe, he was able to come out on top even though he doesn’t consider himself a sprinter. Though that’s something his competitors may disagree with.
Women’s top 5: 2018 USA CRITS Winston-Salem Cycling Classic
1. Samantha Schneider (ISCorp)
2. Arlenis Sierra (Astana Women’s Team)
3. Erica Allar (Rally Cycling)
4. Lauretta Hanson (UnitedHealthcare)
5. Tina Pic (Colavita-Bialetti
Men’s top 5: 2018 USA CRITS Winston-Salem Cycling Classic
1. Colin Joyce (Rally Cycling)
2. Pier-Andre Cote (Silber
3. Sam Bassetti (Elevate-KHS)
4. Jose Alfredo Rodrigues Victoria (Elevate-KHS)
5. Diego Milan Jimenez (Team Inteia-DCT)
2018 USA CRITS Pro women series leaders (after 2 of 11 events)
Colavita Overall Leader: Samantha Schneider (ISCorp)
Cycling Tips p/b BikeReg Lap Leader: Rachel Langdon (Gray Goat Mobile-Bullseye Total Media)
JL Velo Best Young Rider: Caroline Baur (ISCorp)
FSA Fastest Lap: Georgia Baker (Fearless Femme)
Bandit Award: Erica Allar (Rally Cycling)
2018 USA CRITS Pro men series leaders (after 2 of 11 events)
Colavita Overall Leader: John Murphy (Holowesko-Citadel)
Cycling Tips p/b BIkeReg Lap Leader: John Murphy (Holowesko-Citadel)
JL Velo Best Young Rider: Miguel Bryon (Holowesko-Citadel)
FSA Fastest Lap: John Murphy (Holowesko-Citadel)
Bandit Award: Frank Travieso (EDA-Evolution Cycling)
Remaining events in the 2018 USA CRITS series
June 1: Oklahoma City Pro-Am Classic Midtown – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
June 17: Harlem Skyscraper Classic – New York City
July 6: New American Town Criterium – Bentonville, Arkansas
July 14: Andersen Schwartzman Woodard Brailsford Twilight Criterium – Boise, Idaho
July 28: San Rafael Sunset Criterium – San Rafael, California
August 4: Littleton Twilight Criterium – Littleton, Colorado
August 11: Benchmark Twilight Cycling Classic – West Chester, Pennsylvania
September 2: Giro della Montagna (Gateway Cup) – St. Louis, Missouri
September 15: Atlantic City Resurgence Fest Criterium – Atlantic City, New Jersey